Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

STREAMING SATURDAY! Donat and Dietrich in KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR—Plus Marlene’s Home Movies!

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed a free, fabulous movie for you to watch right here every weekend!

This week: Jacques Feyder’s Knight Without Armor, a sweeping historical romance with a lot more romance than history.

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Adapted for the screen by the legendary Frances Marion from James Hilton’s 1934 novel, the film stars Robert Donat as a British journalist working undercover in the waning days of Czarist Russia, who’s tasked with escorting a princess (Marlene Dietrich) on the treacherous journey from Moscow to Petrograd so she can stand trial for crimes against the new order. But soon he’s trying to spirit his new love to safety…

In 1937, Donat was at the height of his powers—and so stunning that Dietrich wryly joked that “the audience won’t know who to look at—him or me.” She preferred to look at him, and according to her daughter, Maria Riva, was disappointed to discover he was a married man who loved to talk of nothing more than his home and garden, waxing poetic about flowers and fertilizers. I imagine her reaction to all that talk of hollyhocks was something like this:

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But with Feyder at the helm, she needn’t have worried—even jokingly—about capturing the viewer’s gaze. Earlier, the director had wrapped his lens lovingly around Greta Garbo in her last silent movie, The Kiss, as well as her first sound film, Anna Christie, and here, Dietrich looked just as luminous. (Though making Marlene look great seems a bit like making meringue taste good.)

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To secure her services for the role of the princess, producer Alexander Korda paid Dietrich a quarter of a million dollars plus 10 percent of the gross, an especially whopping sum considering the average cost of his previous films had been around $300,000 all in. The money wasn’t an issue until Donat—already plagued by the crippling asthma that would ultimately claim his life—was ill for long stretches, at one point causing production to be shut down for an entire month.

Korda was all set to fire him but Dietrich chivalrously fought for her knight, offering to forego her salary during any downtime. She also taught Donat a few breathing techniques that helped him get through his longer scenes. (Far from the diva she’s often portrayed as, Marlene was in reality a total brick; read here how she risked her life to entertain the Allied troops in WWII—and washed her lingerie in a helmet filled with melted snow. She was also a homebody who made a mean chocolate cake.)

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The chemistry between the co-stars absolutely crackles. And because this was a British film, unfettered by the pesky Production Code, you may need a cigarette after their scenes in the woods, including one with Dietrich curled up in Donat’s arms as he recites Browning.

“They’ll call off the search now,” he later assures her. “In a few days we can leave the forest.”

To which she purrs in soft, low tones,  “Don’t you like my forest?”

“I adore it,” he growls, followed by a long, slow kiss and a fade-out. The next morning, Dietrich is seen skinny dipping and looking quite… happy.

And on that note, here we go!

And a bonus short this week: Marlene’s 1937 home movies!! Where she’s—ahem—”accompanied by her Hollywood colleague, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.” Who was more than happy not to talk about gardening.

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you a free fun film every week! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

1 Comment

  1. I love love LOVE this movie! I’m so glad you are showcasing it! Robert Donat is super dreamy in this!

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